Let's face it; zombies, on an individual level, aren't really that threatening. Sure, they may be impervious to pain and capable of infecting their victims with a single bite, but they're slow, they're clumsy, and they lack the mental capacity to use any kind of tools. Chances are, as long as you have good aim, you'll be able to dispose of them with ease.
But in a Zombie Apocalypse, you may find yourself face-to-face with monsters far more terrifying than the living dead. They're cunning, resilient, resourceful, and absolutely ruthless... and by now, you probably know where this is going: Humans Are the Real Monsters.
Indeed, in zombie fiction, the protagonists will often come to realize that zombies are the least of their problems. The real threat will come from roaming gangs of bandits, psychotic military officers determined to mow down everything in sight, malicious military forces, overly paranoid survivalists who simply can't trust anyone, whatever corrupt law enforcement was born of (or remains in the aftermath of) the disaster or even normal, everyday people who were either Driven to Madness or ruthlessness born out of desperation by the horror going on around them.
This trope refers to works that either imply or outright state that fellow survivors can be just as dangerous, if not more so, than the undead menace.
- Played for Black Comedy in the Franken Fran chapter "Living Dead", where the "zombies" turn out to be alive in a more than semantic sense—they could all easily be cured. Problem is, the uninfected quickly assumed they were zombies and started killing them, and thus were responsible for most of the actual deaths.
- Highschool of the Dead: 'THEM' are certainly very threatening, but the human Koichi Shido is, in some ways, far more vile and horrifying.
- While the titular Crossed are psychopathic, sadistic, murderous rapists (and all four those of those can apply in one scene), many of the surviving humans aren't much better. The biggest example would be the ranch owner who started a religious cult (and had been raping his daughter for years). The protagonists also shoot a bunch of children in cold blood (they would likely have starved/become Crossed otherwise, but that doesn't make them feel any better). They try to justify this in that the kids had been unwitting cannibals but...
- Lampshaded by one character who points out that the Crossed are doing nothing that normal humans can't do, and have been doing as long as our species has existed.
- The Walking Dead includes several examples of this, particularly The Governor, who happily feeds survivors from outside his town to the zombies in order to keep them 'docile'. You know this is going on pretty hard when the eventual Title Drop is not describing the zombies, but actually the despairing protagonists after one time too many of this Trope being used to Yank the Dog's Chain.
- The zombies in Scooby-Doo on Zombie Island never actually try to harm the protagonists. As revealed at the end of the film, the zombies are actually victims of a life- draining curse cast by the main villains of the movie, Lena and Simone. Every harvest moon, the zombies rise to scare away visitors, keeping their operation secret.
- In 28 Days Later, the protagonists face their biggest threat not from the zombies but from the group of soldiers they encounter.
- This trope is a major theme in George A. Romero's Living Dead Series, which is also probably the Ur-Example and Trope Codifier. For example, in Night of the Living Dead (1968), the sole survivor of the film gets shot by some redneck zombie hunter, who doesn't bother checking whether his target is alive or not. In the following parts of the series, that focus more on the effects of the Zombie Apocalypse on human society, people fall in complete anarchy. More often than not, the zombies actually end up working for the favor of the protagonists by killing the humans who pose a more considerable threat to them.
- Dawn of the Dead (1978) especially takes delight in pointing this out, there are several scenes where humans can simply walk through crowds of zombies, since their reaction time is so poor they're only dangerous if you get yourself trapped or act like an idiot... which of course is what tons of people do. The living are more interested in screaming at eachother, go on killing sprees or engage in looting while society is falling down around them, and letting the zombie apocalypse spiral out of control.
- Cargo (2013): Vic is willing to use other humans (albeit in protected cages) as bait to lure in zombies to kill, and is keeping a woman named Lorraine against her will (although whether as a Sex Slave or just to maintain some feeling of domestic normalcy in his home is unclear).
- Stake Land: While the film has vampires instead of zombies, the overall atmosphere is the same, and Jebedia Loven and his Ax-Crazy Apocalypse Cult are just as dangerous to the characters as the vampires are.
- The Zombie Survival Guide devotes one chapter to weighing the pros and cons of different types of shelter, from schools to office buildings to churches. When discussing prisons, the author mentions that it's often safer to confront ten zombies than it is to take on one hardened criminal.
- Newsflesh: The living are definitely as big a threat, or worse, than the zombies. They try to control the remaining living with fear, and with weaponized zombie outbreaks.
- In The Day of the Triffids, the triffids are a hazard, but the most dangerous threats faced by the protagonists are humans choosing to take advantage of the associated societal collapse.
- In A Song of Ice and Fire, this trope is in effect beyond the Wall. There roam the Others and their undead hordes, but some of the Night's Watch (especially the deserters, mutineers and their ilk) and many Wildlings can be just as vicious.
- Brian Keene is well known for zombie fiction, but that's not to say that he can't write some downright disturbing human antagonists as well.
- In The Rising series, while the zombies may be the most serious threat to the world, the various humans are nothing to laugh at either. In The Rising, a drug gang and a cannibal duo nearly kill three of the protagonists before the real bastards pop up- the Pennsylvania National Guard, who are mostly a brigade of psychopathic rapists armed with tanks and heavy weaponry. While City of the Dead puts the focus almost fully on the zombies, some humans again prove to be a Spanner in the Works. Selected Scenes From the End of the World has living humans fill the role as antagonists throughout the book until the penultimate chapter, owing to the world being burned to a crisp.
- This is downplayed in the non-Rising book Dead Sea- the human threat is mostly overshadowed by The Virus, but the one visit to the mainland results in a survivor killing two crew members, and before the boat sails most of Baltimore's survivors end up killing each other.
- The BBC Miniseries In the Flesh features an interesting variation on this trope. It presents a universe in which zombies are actually capable of behaving like completely normal humans, and the main conflict of the story concerns the Fantastic Racism they suffer at the hands of the living.
- Z Nation has multiple examples, including a Zombie Advocate cult that turns a refuge into a Safe Zone Hope Spot early on (and kills the Decoy Protagonist leader of the survivors), The Remnant of The Cartel (that is trying to take over what's left and using drugs boosted with zombie fertilizer as their personal Bread and Circuses), the man that caused the Zombie Apocalypse and his minions and eventually members of an invading nation. And then there's the Wild Card that is Murphy.
- Most of the conflict of The Walking Dead comes fron human threats rather than walkers. At the start of the series, the characters struggle against zombies, but as time goes on in the series the characters have adjusted to zombies as a reality, yet the danger of humans becomes more and more severe.
- In Dead of Winter zombies are a constant problem but the real conflict arises from the fact that each player has their own secret agenda despite everyone supposedly playing cooperatively. Some agendas require the player to hoard vital supplies without which the other players will suffer penalties. Others outright require you to arrange for other characters to get killed off.
- In Red Markets, "the living" include the corrupt members of what remains of the government in the aftermath of the Zombie Apocalypse (who left pretty much anybody west of the Mississippi River to die, for starters), the vile corporations that hunt down the few people immune to the virus (or at least somewhat more resistant) in order to harvest them to sell off antiviral drugs (made of said people) to the masses and the Zombie Advocate cults, as well as people who work to scavenge enough resources to pay for a better living who will do anything to achieve that One Last Job.
- Dead Rising
- The game uses this trope extensively and lampshades it on more than one occasion. Zombies are relatively easy to kill, but the true challenge comes from taking down the bosses of the game (dubbed "Psychopaths") who are generally either regular humans who were driven insane or sadistic sociopaths who are simply taking advantage of the situation. And that's not even getting into the second part of the game, when the special forces agents show up...
- In one scene in Dead Rising 2: Off the Record, Chuck Greene effortlessly restrains a female zombie while commenting on how easy they are to kill compared to psychotic survivors (or as he calls them, 'nutbars').
- Most of the survivors in The Last of Us are not on your side; or, for that matter, anyone's. At one point, Bill (the hero's Crazy-Prepared ally) remarks that he's more afraid of other survivors than infected, since the infected are at most predictable.
- In the Resident Evil franchise, the threat posed by zombie outbreaks is typically just a sign of the much larger threat posed by the Umbrella Corp (and various other Big Bads when they finally get shut down between the events of the first three games and Resident Evil 4) and the weaponised mutants they manufacture from the "lucky" few who don't turn into zombies.
- In an interesting version of this trope, in DayZ, other players are often times much more dangerous than the zombies, as organized groups of bandits will shoot you on sight for supplies, to make sure that you don't kill them, or simply For the Evulz.
- This can also happen in Urban Dead. While zombies definitely pose a threat (particularly when organised en masse), other human players can prove to be a pain in the arse in different ways. Free running allows them to get into buildings in order to destroy generators, pick other survivors off one by one and destroy barricades. God help you if you fall victim to a Zerg Rush (which is supposed to be illegal).
- The Walking Dead: As in the comic series, when the main characters aren't fighting cannibals, bandits, kidnappers, and quasi-dictators, they're fighting each other. All things considered, walkers only serve as tools with which the characters can be killed off; the conflict comes from humans.
- Rebuild 2: While the zombies are the main threat, the vilest enemies are the Last Judgement gang, a religious cult insisting on killing anyone who doesn't follow their beliefs (and the less said about how they treat women the better). During the assault on their compound (one of the game's Multiple Endings) the attackers blow a hole in the LJ's walls, flooding them with zombies.
- This trope is discussed and subjected to a refreshingly optimistic Deconstruction by Cracked. As many Real Life survivors of disasters can attest, the first thing members of a community do when struck by one is to quickly seek out and help neighbors, not panic and go at each other's throats as order crumbles.